x0x You could be in Asia Minor
- x0x You could be in Asia Minor
Paul Mansfield trips through Istanbul
THE first question you find yourself asking about Istanbul is
whether it's East or West. Beneath the westernised veneer - latest
model cars, a new tram system, consumer goods piled high in shops -
lies an older, more traditional city. You glimpse it in little
things: a man selling roasted chestnuts on a street corner; a
teenage boy pushing a huge stack of boxes on a trolley through the
streets. Duck behind the well-groomed streets of Sultanahmet,
Istanbul's most historic area and the heart of its tourist industry,
and suddenly you're in what might be some small town in Asia Minor.
Old men sit outside cafes with nargileh pipes; small shops sell
everything from nuts and bolts to second-hand clothes. There's the
constant hum of activity, the hive-like atmosphere of all Asian
cities. But there's no hassle. "I expected to be bothered all the
time," confessed my wife. "But it's just not happening."
On our first night we headed to the rooftop terrace at the Hotel
Ambassador, with stunning views out over the Blue Mosque. The food
was excellent - succulent balls of cheese in filo pastry, good
grilled fish, an egg course with spicy peppers - but it all arrived
at once, brought up in the tiny lift from the basement kitchen. As
we waded through the torrent of food, amused and endeared, the
muezzin started up from the Mosque opposite, summoning the faithful
to prayer. Hearing it for the first time - the eerie call and
response between minarets, the nasal drone hanging in the cool night
air - is enough to send shivers down your spine. In Istanbul you can
never forget you're in a Moslem country.
To make the best of the city you need a good guide. Ours was Cengiz
Kellekci, who spoke pacy, Americanised English. He steered us round
the usual, exquisite sights: the Blue Mosque, calm and airy, with
the faithful washing outside before prayers. Agia Sofia, for a
thousand years the largest enclosed space in the world: vast,
shadowy, all-dominating - awe-inspiring in a way few sacred
buildings truly are.
Lunch was at the Sultan Pub, a chic establishment where black-clad
waiters hurried to and fro with pizzas and beer, and country and
western drawled from the sound system. Soon, though, C&W was
replaced by mournful Turkish music. "In Turkey we may look modern,"
said Cengiz, "but underneath we're still traditional - and
In the afternoon we went shopping - normally a tricky moment for
both of us. In short, my wife loves it and it bores me rigid. But
this was different. We wandered through the Grand Bazaar, full of
gleaming precious metal, carpets and leatherwear, but ended up
outside, at an extraordinary shop called Punto. Here, suave, sombre-
suited men seated us while their minions unfurled rugs, explaining
each according to its history, design and region.
To my amazement, I became engrossed in what we were seeing. We left
with an exquisite rug, which is the most expensive domestic item we
have ever bought - and it was me, not my wife, who carried it
Sunday lunch was at the Topkapi Palace, at a humble cafeteria with
one of the best views in the world, of a silvery Bosphorus criss-
crossed by tankers and tiny ferries. We visited the Harem, perhaps
the most intriguing symbol of male-female relations in Turkey's
Here the Sultans enjoyed absolute power over their courtiers and
hundreds of wives - but the influence of the Sultan's first wife and
mother was enormous. "Difficult to say who exactly had the upper
hand," said Cengiz.
Then the Cemberlitas hamam; the 16th-century bath house designed by
the legendary Turkish architect Sinan. A walrus-moustachioed, pot-
bellied man pounded my back, wrenched my neck from side to side then
chucked a bucket of cold water over me and propelled me through the
door of the baths. I limped across the reception area feeling - and
looking - like someone who has just gone the distance with Hulk
Hogan. My wife, who had been cosseted and soothed in the women's
section, looked relaxed and radiant as she sipped an orange juice.
On this occasion it was all too clear who had the upper hand.
Report filed: 27/04/2002